King Bhumibol became engaged to his cousin Mom Rajawong Sirikit Kitiyakara in 1949. They married a year later on April 28, 1950. After the royal wedding, King Bhumibol conferred her with the name Queen Sirkikit Kittiyakara and pledged that he would not have a harem. She was the daughter of Thailand’s ambassador to France. He met her briefly and told his mother while recuperating from eye surgery in the hospital after an automobile accident that his greatest wish was to see her again. His mother arranged a meeting at the future king’s hospital bedside. Their romance bloomed while he was recuperating.
King Bhumibol’s favorite photography subject over the decades has been his queen, Sirkikit , whose beauty it is said has captivated him since their marriage. He married after completing his studies in Switzerland. When he returned home with her their arrival spread by word of mouth "through cobra-ridden jungles where tigers lurked and elephants lurched." Time magazine one wrote: “"Queen Sirikit looks like mandolins sound."
As for the queen’s role she says first of all that Thai women "never had the feeling of being inferior to their menfolks." She puts a lot of her energy into encouraging rural people to make traditional crafts such as clay dolls, tie-dyed silk and artificial flowers to supplement their income. She has sponsored silk making lessons in the royal palace.
A noted conservationist like her husband, the queen celebrated the Kings 69th birthday with the release of thousands of endangered sea turtles. She also loves orchids and has been involved in activities aimed at improving the lives of ethnic minorities in northern Thailand. .
Children of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit
King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit have four children: 1) Her Royal Highness Princess Ubol Ratana (born April 5, 1951); 2) His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (born of July, 28 1952); 3) Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (born April 2, 1955) and 4) the youngest, Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn (born July 4, 1957). According to the Thai government: Together with the Royal Family, His Majesty King Bhumibol initiated royal activities for his country.
Against palace wishes Princess Ubol Ratana, the eldest daughter, married Peter Jensen, an American and fellow student she met while studying at MIT in the U.S. They were married in 1972 and had one son and two daughters and lived in San Diego, California. Later she filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery. In the divorce proceedings in the United States she accused him of waging “psychological warfare” to gain custody of their children and assets. She lost her titles when she married a commoner but had them reinstated after the divorce.
The youngest daughter Chulabhorn. married a Thai commoner and military officer. They were ultimately divorced because, she said, he was "quick-tempered and insensitive."
The most popular royal offspring by far is Princess Sirindorn who frequently has accompanied the king on his journeys and writes poetry. In 2006 she became the first members of the Thai royal family to launch a blog. In one of her first postings she said one of the aims of her blog was to urge her fellow citizens to embrace English. Many Thais privately favor her as the next monarch of Thailand.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralonkorn
Many Thai's have serious concerns about Crown Prince Maha Vajiralonkorn being the next Thai king. Trained to fly fighters at Fort Bragg in the United States, he studied military science in Australia and reportedly has a fascination with military hardware. Considered to be the "black sheep" of the royal family, he has been married three times and has had to deny rumors about unsavory activities such as rigging lotteries and owning nightclubs.
A U.S. diplomatic cable written in 2009 and leaked in 2011 reported that the Crown Prince might be HIV positive. The cable reads: “Vajiralongkor is believed to be suffering from a blood-related medical condition (varying sources claim he is either HIV-positive, has Hepatitis C; is afflicted by a rare form of ‘blood cancer’, or some combination which leads to regular blood transfusions). [Source: Kenneth Denby, Times of London, June 2011]
A Wikileaks-leaked cable written by U.S. Ambassador Eric King said Crown Prince Maha Vajiralonkorn was “long known for violent and unpredictable mood swings” and “has spent most (up to 75 percent ) of the past two years based in Europe (primarily at a villa at a medical spa 20 kilometers outside Munich) with his leading mistress and beloved white poodle Fufu.” One cable said the poodle was named after an Air Chief Marshal. Another said that “people would have a difficult time accepting his current wife, Princess Srirasmi, as their queen based largely on a widely distributed salacious video of the birthday celebration for Fufu, in which Srirasmi appears wearing nothing more than a G-string.”
In July 2011, a Boeing 737 used by the Crown prince was seized by German authorities as part of an old dispute between the bankrupt German construction company Walter Bau AG and the Thai government, which owed the German company $43 million. The prince’s plane was seized because it was regarded as a possession of the Thai government. The prince said he was willing to use some of his personal assets to help settle the dispute, which finally ended when the Thai government paid a $43 million deposit in the form of a bank guarantee to be returned by the court when it was proven the plane was the prince’s personal property.
Princess Galyani Vadhana, King Bhumibol’s Sister
Princess Galyani Vadhana, the elder sister of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, died in January 2008 of abdominal cancer at the age of 84 years old. She was born in London on May 6, 1923. According to AP she was “noted for her interest in the arts, especially theater and classical music, a taste cultivated when she, like the king, was educated in Switzerland, where she spent much time until later life. She spoke five languages and loved to travel, documenting many of her journeys in books. Known as modest and self-effacing, she told an interviewer in 2000: “I don’t like gala dinners. They're boring.” [Source: Grant Peck, AP, January 2, 2008]
Galyani married Col Aram Ratanakul Serireungriddhi, a royal aide but a commoner, in 1944, which meant she had to give up the royal title she was awarded in 1935. The couple had a daughter but divorced in 1949. The royal title was restored by Bhumibol in 1950, after the divorce. She married again in 1969 to Prince Varananda Dhavaj, a professional pilot, who died in 1990. Perhaps the most cosmopolitan of her generation of royals, Galyani taught French and literature at Thai universities after her post-war return from Switzerland, though she had graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Lausanne. A lifelong Francophile, she founded the Association of Teachers of French in Thailand, which she headed in 1977-81.
She also took up an intensive schedule of charity work, which is a mainstay of royal responsibility. She was a patron of at least five health-related foundations. “My father was a doctor and my mother was a nurse. I suppose that has something to do with my work (on charities),” she said. “I lived a long time in Switzerland and when I came back to Thailand I saw there was much to be done in every domain.”
Other Members of the Royal Family
Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol is head of the Chulabhorn Research Institute of Thailand, She was named one of the 23 most distinguished women in chemistry and chemical engineering by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.
The dowager queen, Princess Sri Nakarindra Borom, who died in July 1995, is revered by hill tribes for the work she did to improve their lives.
In 1996, 60-year-old Prince Thitiphan Yugala was murdered by poison. In 2002, his wife, Chalasai Yugala, who was 24 at the time of the murder, was sentenced to six years in prison for her role in the crime. Chalasai, known in the press as Luk Pa (“Baby Fish”), was an orphan. She was adopted by the prince when she four and became a princess when she was 13 and his wife when she was 23.
A diplomatic cable from 2009 leaked by Wikileaks expressed grave concern over what will happen when the king dies. “It is hard to underestimate the political impact of the uncertainty surrounding the inevitable succession crisis which will be touched off once King Bhumibol passes,” wrote James Entwistle, the charge de affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
Some have speculated that the death of King Bhumibol could be followed by a military coup or a succession crisis in which the Crown Prince claims the thrown while being challenged by the Queen or his older sister Princess Sirindhorn. The Thai Ambassador in London told The Times: “Royal succession...is governed by palace laws and the Thai constitution, which should ensure a smooth transition. There is no cause for uncertainty, ad no warranted basis for speculation.”
Longtime Bangkok resident Stanley A. Weiss wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Some fear that King Bhumibol’s death, “whenever it occurs, will spark chaos in this country of 65 million. The 1924 Palace Law of Succession establishes primogeniture of male heirs, suggesting Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will try to fill his father's shoes. Unfortunately, the crown prince lacks his father's discipline and standing; one longtime Bangkok businessman told me that doubts about Vajiralongkorn's fitness for the job were "beyond any return." [Source: Stanley A. Weiss, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2010; Weiss, who has spent part of the year in Thailand for more than 20 years, is founding chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington]
Thailand's 1974 constitution declared that in the absence of a prince, parliament could pick a king's daughter to assume the throne. Many Thais feel the king's daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, would be an excellent candidate. Yet Thailand experts tell me that as long as the crown prince is alive, "the dreams of Sirindhorn succeeding are just that." They predict the crown will pass to Vajiralongkorn and that the monarchy will "be weakened and changed forever."
This will mean the transformation of politics as well. For although it is one thing to clamp down on democracy while claiming to defend a revered king -- as the aristocratic yellow shirts did in 2008 -- it will be much harder for monarchists to maintain their grip on authority if the monarch in question lacks mass devotion. What about the military, responsible for 18 coups since 1935? One prominent Thai entrepreneur told me his worst-case scenario is the emergence of a young, charismatic leader at the helm of a rising red shirt movement, calling for an end to "the double standards in Thai society." This might provoke the army to feel it has the mandate to use force to preserve the status quo. Thailand-based columnist Chang Noi suspects the military may block another general election, speculating that it would likely want to overthrow the winners anyway.
The most hopeful scenario is one in which the king's passing sparks a democratic maturation -- across institutions, civil society and political classes. The first step, however, must be a national conversation about the future. And that can't happen as long as strict lèse-majesté laws render the topic of succession taboo. Bhumibol Adulyadej's name means "strength of the land, incomparable power." Perhaps the greatest gift he can give his country now is permission to start planning for life without him.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014